When creating eLearning or workflow learning tools for a global audience, translating the content isn’t enough to ensure that the training hits the mark with a culturally diverse audience. Culture shapes the way people communicate and think—which naturally affects how they learn. Culturally inclusive instructional design looks beyond language and even beyond the visual design of eLearning to address cultural differences that are fundamental to the success of learning and collaboration.

A new book, Culturally Inclusive Instructional Design, by Charlotte Gunawardena, Casey Frechette, and Ludmila Layne, cites research that identified several dimensions of cultural influence on learning. These are:

  • Intrinsic or external motivation—whether learners are motivated by a desire to improve or grow versus an external motivator such as financial benefit or peer recognition
  • Locus of control—whether learning follows set paths or learners choose and shape their learning experiences
  • Role of teachers—whether instructors are seen as wise experts who impart knowledge or mentors and coaches who facilitate learning
  • Tolerance for failure—whether an error is seen as a devastating blow or an opportunity to learn and grow
  • Type of activity and engagement—whether learners access content or participate in problem-solving activities
  • Theoretical or practical knowledge—whether learners study theories and models or apply knowledge themselves during learning
  • One size fits all—whether learning approaches treat all learners identically or accommodate individual differences
  • Individual or group focus—whether learners work independently or in collaborative groups or teams

Few cultures or individuals identify as solidly one or the other on these questions; rather, each pair of options represents the end values of a continuum. Cultural approaches to teaching and learning, and therefore to instructional design, fall at varying places along each continuum.

Training or eLearning aimed at an international audience—or even a culturally diverse local audience—cannot possibly anticipate and address each individual’s cultural background, learning preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. The authors’ response is a change in focus: “Instruction that promotes learning across cultures seeks to accommodate diverse perspectives and preferences by following the principles of universal design for learning (UDL) rather than anticipate individual learner differences upfront. These principles emphasize flexibility and learner choice,” the authors wrote.

Their focus on UDL is really a focus on learner experience. UDL emphasizes choices that make eLearning more accessible to more people.

Apply UDL principles to increase inclusivity

UDL is based on three principles, which can be applied in ways that promote cultural inclusivity.

1.      Provide multiple means of representation

Providing multiple means of representation—content in different forms—acknowledges that each learner’s circumstances and preferences are unique. Offering eLearning in multiple modalities allows learners to choose a format that works for them at the time and place they need to access the content. It’s a way to accommodate learners with differing access to technology and high-speed internet as well as a way to accommodate differences in ability and culture. For instance, providing plain-text versions of content as well as graphically rich versions makes it easy for both learners who use assistive technology and those with slow internet to access the content.

A culturally inclusive approach to implementing multiple means of representation will also consider cultural interpretations of signs and symbols and varied approaches to learning and consuming content. According to Culturally Inclusive Instructional Design, “Viable alternatives should be identified so the interface design can account for potential misinterpretations or ways of understanding rooted in different cultures.”

2.      Provide multiple means of action and expression

Offering learners options for expressing what they know means offering activities, assessments, and other ways to demonstrate and apply learning. This can be as simple as allowing learners to write or draw their projects, type them into a laptop, or use a voice interface to enter responses and content on a laptop or smartphone.

Again, offering these choices accommodates both learners with disabilities, by allowing them to use technology to assist them and to bypass technology when appropriate, and learners with varying levels of access to technology. It also accommodates different learner preferences and levels of experience: Some learners might be comfortable creating a data visualization to present their research findings, while others struggle with the tools and visual concepts needed to present data in that way. Language barriers might make visual representations or videos easier for some learners than written responses.

By divorcing the presentation mode from the learning, all learners can find a way to apply what they’ve learned and demonstrate proficiency. Obviously, this is possible only for learning that isn’t dependent on using a specific tool; if the goal of the eLearning is becoming comfortable using a specific piece of software, fewer means of action and expression might be feasible than if the objective is explaining a concept or learning the features of a new product.

3.      Provide multiple means of engagement

Offering multiple means of engagement addresses differences in motivation and tolerance for errors. “People find meaning in different kinds of experiences and interactions, depending on culture, personal relevance, and background knowledge,” the authors wrote. They point out that, for many adult learners, relevance—how learning will help learners solve problems in their personal or professional lives—is a significant motivator. At the same time, “culture influences what problems receive focus and the inquiry process used to find solutions.” For that reason, “technologies, interactions, and activities must allow learners to process information, express themselves, and form connections between people and ideas in ways reflective of their cultures,” according to Culturally Inclusive Instructional Design.

Adopt UDL for inclusive instructional design

The authors of Culturally Inclusive Instructional Design believe that attempting to anticipate and ameliorate cultural differences often “overemphasizes symbols, such as what certain colors or hand gestures mean. It also makes us more prone to let our own biases or assumptions inadvertently dictate how students will learn, rather than including them in the process.”

Instead, they argue for embracing the collaborative, learner-centered approach represented by UDL. To create inclusive, approachable, and accessible eLearning, “Apply the principles of UDL to develop a deeply collaborative learning experience,” the authors advise. This inclusive instructional design approach spares instructors the impossible task of teaching to each individual’s preferences while providing flexible eLearning that allows learners to make choices that control how they learn.